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Environmental Pollution

Volume 684: debated on Thursday 20 July 2006

I have today published the Government's response to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (RCEP) report, Crop spraying and the health of residents and bystanders. This response sets out the Government's views on the recommendations made by the Royal Commission and indicates how we intend to address them. I have placed copies of the response in the Library of each House.

First, I would like to thank the Royal Commission for producing this report, which was requested by the right honourable Alun Michael MP when Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environment Quality to examine the science on which the current pesticide approvals system is based and the reasons for people's concerns about possible adverse health effects from pesticide spraying.

The Government recognise the clearly genuine concerns of some residents and bystanders about the spraying of pesticides. The Government can, and will, do more to address these concerns.

I firmly believe that these concerns are best addressed at the local level through dialogue between residents and farmers to identify and understand the issues and to develop mutually agreeable solutions. I also believe that this can be achieved most rapidly through a voluntary approach that allows for innovative and flexible solutions.

Existing voluntary schemes, such as Farm Assurance and the Voluntary Initiative, have demonstrated how effective non-statutory approaches can be in changing behaviour. I want to see schemes such as these playing a crucial role in ensuring that both farmers and the public can have a greater mutual understanding of the problems they each face. These schemes have the potential to provide farmers both with the practical support and the incentive to be good neighbours in this regard, and I will be discussing with these organisations and others how this might be achieved.

I believe that the proposals set out in the Government's response, a number of which are already under way, can achieve the majority of outcomes envisaged by the Royal Commission without the need for additional burdensome regulation on the agricultural sector.

The Government have also noted the concern of both the Royal Commission and some members of the public about how the risks to residents and bystanders are considered in the approvals process. To address that concern, I have requested a complete review of the model used to assess resident and bystander exposure as part of the pesticide approvals process.

The current approvals process is adequate with clear safety margins built in. However, I recognise that it needs to be more clearly demonstrated to the public that approvals are based on high quality underpinning science. To address this, the revised exposure model will give more explicit consideration to a wider range of possible exposure routes and will reflect modern farming practices. The research to develop this model has already begun. A former member of the Royal Commission was one of the peer reviewers for the proposal before it was approved, and Defra's chief scientific adviser will ensure the development of the model meets acceptable scientific standards.

The UK is also taking a primary role on this issue in Europe, taking the lead in revising the guidance on acceptable exposure limits, including the assessment of resident and bystander exposure, for the European Commission.

The Government have considered the findings of the report very thoroughly alongside additional independent scientific advice. The Department of Health has sought the views of the Committees on Toxicity and on Carcinogenicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment on the report's health recommendations, and Defra has additionally considered advice from the chief scientific adviser and the Advisory Committee on Pesticides on the wider recommendations of the report. In addition to this scientific advice we have also considered the views of interested parties from all sides of the debate.

The scientific advice we have received is clear that there is insufficient evidence to support the Royal Commission's recommendations for additional regulatory measures on safety grounds. Introducing regulations for other reasons, such as perceived nuisance from spraying, would be incompatible with the Government's better regulation policy. We have therefore decided against introducing any new regulations at this time.